Monday, August 04, 2003

The Re-Chaining of Alt-Weeklies

Since its return to publication in May after the feds stepped in to undo a shameful deal between the two main alt-weekly chains, the Free Times has made much of the fact that rival Scene is part of a soulless alternative weekly chain, New Times, which it implies is a conflict in terms. And rightly so. Only problem is, as of about a week ago, the Free Times is itself also part of a chain.

That's because late last month the paper's Erie-PA-based owner, Times Publishing Company, purchased an alternative paper in Louisville, Tennessee, The Louisville Eccentric Observer. You probably won't read about it in the FT, though my guess is that eventually the Scene will catch on and do something with it (though possibly not, since the Phoenix-based owners may not want to call any more attention to the topic of chain ownership).

You may have noticed that FT editor David Eden has all but dropped the shrill, over-the-top anti-Scene blitz with which he came out of the boxes in May. He called for boycotts of the paper and rejection of its out-of-town owners and their cookie-cutter, centralized style of operating papers. While I agreed with many of his points, that line of reasoning struck me as pretty odd, given that the FT also had out-of-town owners, despite Eden's attempts to at least imply that he and publisher Matt Fabyan were the principal owners (they both have some ownership interest, but far from a controlling interest). That opened the door for a Scene counteract on that less-than-factual campaign. And in early June, Scene delivered, with this scathing piece by New Times co-founder Mike Lacey, in which he ridicules the FT's "bug-eyed attacks" on his paper. More to the point, he called it a "childish fabrication" for Eden to suggest that the restored FT was no longer part of a large corporation and chain-owned, but "locally owned and operated." His points, never publicly challenged by Eden and the FT, so far as I know, seem to have chilled the Free Times anti-Scene campaign, at least for now. But I would suggest that the Free Times does need to answer them eventually, since after all, the only thing a paper has to offer is its credibility.

And in recent weeks, Eden has had to deal with yet another creeping example of the kettle calling the pot black. To his point about much of Scene's editorial policy originating from Phoenix, with some (especially entertainment) stories being syndicated across the chain, the FT only last week ran a cover story on local golfer Ben Curtis written by a Philly Inquirer sportswriter. The connection? Shaker Hts. native Art Howe, a former Pulitzer winner with the Inquirer, leads the Times Publishing subsidiary which owns the Free Times (though Eden, obviously attuned to the touchiness of this issue, took pains to point out in an addendum note that this piece was written exclusively for the Free Times). In the same issue, the paper also carried a political column by the Philly alt-weekly, City Paper. You guessed it: Howe owns that paper. So I ask you: is the FT really that different an animal than the Scene, leaving aside for a moment Eden's laudable moral fervor? I'd say all of this bears further scrutiny, wouldn't you, dear Cleveland-area citizen/news consumer?

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, Randy Siegel, the son of the Free Times' original founder, and a guy who took over running the paper for several years after his dad died (before selling it to the chain that owns the Village Voice), was recently named publisher of Parade Magazine, that wan Sunday color insert in dozens of papers around the country, including the Plain Dealer. I always thought it was interesting that he went to Parade soon after leaving the FT, since the publication is owned by the PD's owners, Newhouse's Advance Publications, and Randy presided over a paper that regularly pounded on the PD. Just goes to show you that when it comes to making money in publishing, memories can be short.


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